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    Friday, February 20, 1998

    Pechstein beats Gunda the Great for the gold

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- This Olympic moment was supposed to belong to Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann.
     But, as she watched Claudia Pechstein snatch away the last of the speedskating gold medals with a performance that left the crowd at M-Wave gasping for breath, there wasn't anything Niemann-Stirnemann could do but shrug her shoulders.
     The 31-year-old German settled for the record-tying eighth individual medal of her career today, a silver, and the knowledge that she was the first woman to eclipse seven minutes in a 5,000-meter race.
     Pechstein, unconcerned about the significance of the moment, swiped the gold by going even faster -- a world record of 6 minutes, 59.61 seconds, edging her countrywoman by 0.04 seconds.
     "This was power. This was world-class skating today," said Gerard Kemkers, the American all-around coach.
     It was a dramatic, fitting conclusion to the speedskating competition at M-Wave. Olympic records were eclipsed in all 10events and five world marks were set.
     Skating in the next-to-last pairing, Niemann-Stirnemann obliterated her world record with a time of 6:59.65, beating the old mark of 7:03.26 by nearly four seconds.
     Gunda the Great circled the oval on her warm-down lap carrying a stuffed animal, saluted by the applause of fans and fellow competitors alike. But Niemann-Stirnemann brought her finger to her lips, asking for quiet, because there were still two more skaters to go.
     One of them was Pechstein, runner-up to Niemann-Stirnemann in the 3,000 and the only person with a chance to catch her on this day.
     "They said, 'Go to the start,' and my legs felt heavy," said Pechstein, whose previous best time in the 5,000 was 7:14.37. "But I found my steps and I had good lap times. I was only a little bit better than Gunda."
     Pechstein surged ahead of Niemann-Stirnemann's pace on the ninth of 12 1/2 laps and held on at the end. She zoomed across the finish line, gasped in awe when she saw the scoreboard and collapsed in the arms of her coach on the backstretch.
     Niemann-Stirnemann was watching from a bench on the inside of the track. When she saw Pechstein's time, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say, "What more could I have done," rubbed her nose with a water bottle and smiled weakly.
     The bronze went to Lyudmila Prokasheva of Kazakstan, who was nearly 12 seconds behind the two Germans, 7:11.14.
     Niemann-Stirnemann equaled the Winter Games record of eight individual medals held by East German speedskater Karin Enke-Kania and Norwegian cross country skier Bjorn Dahlie.
     Dahlie has 11 medals in all, but three of them have come in relays.
     Niemann-Stirnemann, who hasn't decided if she will try to compete at Salt Lake City in 2002, now has three golds, four silvers and a bronze over three Olympics. At Nagano, she won the 3,000 and finished second in the 1,500 and 5,000, erasing the memory of a fall at Lillehammer four years ago when she seemed assured of another gold medal.
     Pechstein, 25, has spent her career in Niemann-Stirnemann's shadow, hardly appropriate considering her own Olympic credentials -- two golds, one silver and two bronzes. She also leaves Nagano with two world records, her pre-Olympic mark in the 3,000 still intact as well.
     Six skaters bettered the old Olympic record of 7:14.13, held since 1988 by Yvonne van Gennip of the Netherlands.
     The top American finisher was 17-year-old Kirstin Holum of Waukesha, Wis., cheered on to a seventh-place finish by family and friends wearing "cheesehead" hats. She bettered her personal best by nearly eight seconds and broke her unofficial junior world record with a time of 7:14.20.
     Holum, daughter of 1972 Olympic gold medalist Dianne Holum, plans to give up the sport at the end of this season to attend art school. U.S. speedskating officials are hopeful she will return to the ice before the 2002 Games.
     Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami closed out a solid first Olympics, in which she became the first American woman to skate four events since Beth Heiden in 1980. She was 10th today in 7:16.78, the third top-10 finish of the games for the former in-line skater.